Bengaluru: It was in 1974, when a young Kailasavadivoo Sivan decided to pursue engineering after his pre-university education. With financial constraints, something faced by most farming households in rural India, Sivan went on to pursue a Bachelors in mathematics instead, at S.T.Hindu college in Nagercoil, about 700 km from Chennai, in Tamil Nadu.
He was exceptional in mathematics, creating a record by scoring 100% in four subjects. Sivan says that got him noticed and a chance of a scholarship at the prestigious Madras Institute of Technology (MIT) which boasts of an alumni that includes former president and missile technology pioneer A.P.J.Abdul Kalam.
But, once again, finances came in the way again of Sivan’s pursuit of academics.
“My father had to sell about a quarter of an acre to send me to MIT," Sivan said. Sivan’s father, the sole breadwinner, owned and cultivated paddy (and other seasonal crops like mango) in the one acre he owned—the only source of income for the family of six that included his mother, two sisters and a brother. Sivan too worked in the fields.
Space science and rocketry was something that had never crossed the mind of Sivan, who had been educated in a Tamil-medium school in Sarakkalvilai village, a hamlet in Nagercoil district.
But with persistent encouragement from his father and help from relatives, Sivan took up the study of aeronautical engineering at MIT—the same course taken by Kalam—in 1980. “He (Kalam) was batch number four and I was batch number 29. Same subject but 25 years apart," Sivan recalls.
He then went on to complete his ME in aerospace engineering from Indian Institute of Science (IISC) in 1980 and joined the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1982.
Thirty six years later, at the age of 60, Sivan has been named chairman of the space agency.
Sivan’s appointment comes ahead of Friday’s scheduled launch of 710 kg Cartosat-2 Series, Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV C-40) for earth observation along with 30 co-passenger satellites from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. The launch will also carry on board 28 other satellites from six countries; Canada, Finland, France, Republic of Korea, UK and USA. PSLV-C40/Cartosat-2 Series Satellite Mission is scheduled to be launched on Friday, 12 January morning.
Currently serving as the Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Sivan will take over incumbent ISRO chief A.S.Kiran Kumar.
During his tenure at ISRO and affiliate organisations, Sivan has contributed to multiple programmes including the development of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) project— called the workhorse of ISRO—and contributed towards mission planning, mission design, mission integration and analysis. The mission design process and innovative mission design strategies perfected for PSLV has become the foundation for ISRO launch vehicles like GSLV, GSLV-MK3 and RLV-TD. He is the chief architect of 6D trajectory simulation software, SITARA which is the back-bone of the real-time and non-real-time trajectory simulations of all ISRO launch vehicles, according to the VSSC. He developed and implemented an innovative day-of launch wind biasing strategy which has made possible rocket launch on any day of the year at any weather and wind conditions.
Sivan was also known for evolving strategies for launching India’s MARS mission endeavour through PSLV. He later joined GSLV in April 2011 and led the historical achievement of most successful GSLV flight with indigenous cryogenic stage.
Sivan has been the recipient of multiple prestigious awards including Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) from Sathyabama University, Chennai in April 2014, The Distinguished Alumnus Award 2013 from MIT Alumni Association, Chennai, Dr Biren Roy Space science award for the year 2011, ISRO merit award for the year 2007 and Shri Hari Om Ashram Prerit Dr. Vikram Sarabhai Research award for the year 1999.
Sivan completed his PhD in Aerospace engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay in 2006.
His wife is a homemaker, and they have two sons.